I am an orchestral conductor with no live concerts to prepare for. On March 10, I finished a series of four performances of Vern Griffith’s Wall-to-Wall Percussion show with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, where I am Assistant Conductor. Over the course of a few days, more than 5000 students, teachers, and families had gathered to laugh and learn about percussion instruments in a crowded concert hall, while I led the orchestra through music by John Williams, Modest Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. At this point, there were no cases of Covid-19 in Manitoba, and none of us realised it would be our final concert together for many months. It was only a few days later that the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in the province, and one by one, my upcoming concerts—operas, pops concerts, and student performances—began to be cancelled. I do not know when I will next stand on a podium facing a live symphony orchestra.
I am not doing the things that, in ordinary times, define my job, and yet those around me keep reminding me that my profession as a musician is still valuable. Friends and family tell me how much joy they derive from Yo Yo Ma’s #songsofcomfort and the Berlin Philharmonic’s broadcasts and families posting home performance videos on YouTube. I am the music director of Sistema Winnipeg, a social programme that provides free, daily after-school music lessons to kids in some of the city’s least resourced communities. Our students tell us that they’re bored, lonely, confused, and afraid, but that playing their instruments offers entertainment, solace, community, and routine. In New York, musicians perform for coronavirus patients using cell phones; in Italy, videos of amateur singers belting opera on their balconies quickly go viral. Music has the ability to fill so many of our essential needs—to strengthen our capacity to listen and make us feel heard, to expand our imaginations and create a blueprint for better worlds, to nourish our sense of community and bring new people together.
Yet, as I reflect further on the capacity of music to provide for our needs, I am not convinced that listening to music alone is enough to satisfy. Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “It is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you.” For Le Guin, the satisfaction provisions offer is not only in the needs that they fulfil but also in the gathering itself, and in the vessel in which they are contained. For anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher, “the earliest cultural device was probably a recipient.”
There is a tremendous impulse towards creation right now, and I am grateful for all the incredible artists and musicians making inspiring, urgent, and beautiful new work and performances from their homes in these difficult times. Just as urgent as the creation of new work, however, is the opportunity to collect and gather existing work: whether to consume it, to share it, or to store it for later. “If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you,” writes Le Guin—the same is true of art, and the curation of music allows it to provide us with long-lasting sustenance.
Musical curation can take many forms, from a lovingly selected mixtape sent to a friend, to a slowly expanding record collection, to an orchestra’s season programming. It is care and cure, loving and tending to both the music itself and those for whom it is being offered. This is what we are all doing as we watch and listen and read, bringing art into our homes—tendering offerings to ourselves and letting them mix with each other in the carrier bag of our domestic space.
Seeking, selecting, and gathering music together at home is also a way of making sense of the world. Each gathering of works poses new questions and suggests new ideas. Our makeshift at-home musical gatherings easily transcend the real and imagined boundaries that limit concert halls and venues and radio stations; the music in my living room shifts easily from the classical pieces I practice at the piano, to the K-Pop that my young students have asked me to transcribe for strings, to the experimental new music festival that I stream on my laptop, to the up-beat electronic music that accompanies my at-home workout videos.
“It is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you.”
In this moment in which the physical gathering places of musical curation—concert halls and venues and festivals—are closed, other forms of musical curation offer a site of care with expansive political potential. There is much that I hope we will learn and keep from this. Can we preserve this care amidst the algorithmic curation and streamlining of Spotify playlists? Will we bring the eclecticism of the music that keeps us company during these endless days at home into the public sphere?
I also miss the serendipitous music collecting that can only take place in person, in chance finds at record stores and surprise live gigs by unknown bands at bars. Given the tremendous toll that the pandemic is taking on performing arts organisations, for whom the loss of ticket sales is now being compounded by cuts to arts funding from governments around the world, I am worried about what the future holds for live musical performance. I miss the feeling of being in a concert hall and the magic of the symphony orchestra, which is always an amazing reminder that the whole can truly be so much larger than the sum of its parts. There is an enchantment in physical presence and sharing sound waves with other bodies that simply cannot be replaced by digital proxies.
If we recognise that music is a provision, let us also keep finding places in which to gather it, especially when we cannot gather our bodies to experience music together. At a time in which the fragility of our bodies and health is on display, let us pay attention to curation as a way to care for ourselves and each other, and to preserve and protect the things we love and need for the future.